Program Template photo identifier

Air Quality Program

Outdoor Dust

A picture of a severe dust storm in Eastern Washington 2005.

Outdoor dust occurs throughout Washington, but in dry areas like Eastern Washington, dust is a significant air pollution problem. If you live in Eastern Washington, you have probably experienced dust storms. From spring through fall, high winds in the Columbia Plateau region can combine with dry weather conditions to disturb farm fields and other areas with disturbed soils resulting in dust storms. These dust storms can lead to extremely high levels of particle air pollution.

Current News and Information

Final Exceptional Event Report Submitted

Three unusual thunderstorms created strong winds and dust in Eastern Washington in 2013. The storms overwhelmed agriculture erosion controls and caused air pollution from dust to exceed federal standards. Ecology’s report shows that the dust storms were “Exceptional Events” and is asking EPA to leave out the values from these events when determining compliance with air quality standards.

Final Report: 2013 Exceptional Event Demonstration:  PM10 Exceedances due to High Winds at Kennewick, Publication 15-02-18

Final Report: Frequently Asked Questions

Ecology submitted this demonstration in January 2016. Ecology accepted comments from September 3 to October 5, 2015. There were two comments. See Appendix J for Response to Comments.

EPA will notify us of their decision. If they agree with us, these exceedances will be left out of compliance calculations. EPA will consider comments made on the demonstration when a regulatory decision is made based on the data being excluded. The decision is not final until that time.

Watch the Webinar held August 13, 2015


Your Health and Dust

Dust is made up of tiny particles (particulate matter.) The smallest particles, known as PM10 and PM2.5, are too small to be filtered out by your nose and your body's other natural defense systems. Dust with these fine particles is inhaled deep into your lungs where they cause increased problems with:

  • lung irritation
  • emphysema
  • asthma
  • bronchitis
  • cancer
  • heart disease
  • allergic reactions
  • other serious conditions that can lead to death

Who should take special precautions?
Breathing too much dust can potentially harm anyone. However, the following groups are at the highest risk:

  • Infants, children, teens, the elderly, and pregnant women
  • People with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, or other respiratory conditions
  • People with heart disease
  • Healthy adults working or exercising outdoors (for example, agricultural workers, construction workers, and runners)

How to protect yourself and others
Since small dust particles are the most harmful, the best precaution is simply to avoid going outside when there is a lot of dust in the air.

If you must go out:

  • spend as little time outside as possible
  • Avoid hard exercise
  • Wear some type of covering over your nose and mouth
  • staying out of areas of dust
  • When driving, be alert for sudden changes in visibility and pull over if you have trouble seeing.

Dust Storm Warnings and Notices
Sometimes it’s possible to know that a dust storm may occur. Most dust storms happen in the spring or fall, because of a combination of high winds, dry weather conditions, and uncovered fields. The National Weather Service announces high wind warnings, so your local news may be able to warn you in advance when conditions are ripe for a dust storm. You can sign up to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts about high wind warnings from the National Weather Service (visit for more information). The best thing to do is always be prepared.

How to Prepare for Dust Storms
Windblown dust can’t be completely controlled or avoided, but there are some things you can do to protect yourself during a dust storm. Be ready to stay inside and close your windows, vents, and doors, and plug drafts. If you have allergies or breathing problems, ask your health care provider or local health department what they recommend. If they suggest wearing a mask during a dust storm, buy some and keep them on hand. If dust is a serious health problem for you, your health care provider may advise you to be ready to leave the area during a dust storm.

Reduce Your Risk from Dust Storms
There are some things we can do to prevent windblown dust; but even our best efforts can be overwhelmed by drought and high winds. Farmers prevent and reduce dust by using less intensive tilling methods and planting cover crops that hold the soil in place. Dust controls at construction sites include working in phases to minimize the amount of exposed land area, and using dust suppressants or gravel on bare ground. Contact your local clean air agency or city or county planning department if there is a dust problem in your area. Big dust storms can’t be prevented, but throughout Washington, Ecology and our partners monitor air quality to measure amounts of pollution in the air. This helps pinpoint areas with levels of pollution that could cause health problems so we can work toward reducing and controlling pollution.

Dust Management

Ecology monitors the air for dust in many areas of Washington. Monitors track air quality to find out if areas meet national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS.)

When an exceptional event, like a thunderstorm, causes fine particle pollution to exceed the federal air pollution standards Ecology reports this to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Others Who Help Manage Dust
Local governments, the Environmental Protection Agency and others are also part of managing outdoor dust:

  • Local air agencies and city planning departments enforce rules that require dust control.
  • The federal Clean Air Act requires EPA to review NAAQS (standards) every 5 years to make sure the standards protect human health and the environment. The standards must protect groups of people who are most at risk from air pollution.
  • Farmers help by using voluntary practices that stabilize their fields to preserve soil and keep dirt from leaving their farms. See Natural Resource Conservation Service

Outdoor Dust Categories
Dust is categorized three ways:

  1. Windblown dust
    • Tilled, harvested, and fallow farm fields
    • Natural areas during highest winds
  2. Construction dust
    • While work is underway
    • Cleared and vacant land
  3. Fugitive dust
    • Paved and unpaved roads
    • Activities on vacant land or disturbed areas
    • Unpaved parking lots and equipment yards
    • Military training exercises

Exceptional Events

An exceptional event is an unusual or naturally-occurring event that can affect air quality, but cannot be reasonably controlled. Under air pollution laws, exceptional events are regulated differently than other sources of air pollution. For example, if a storm causes monitor readings to go over the federal limit and EPA agrees the reading was beyond our control, the high reading may be considered an exceptional event. The high reading then would not count when determining if an area meets the NAAQS standard.

Other Information:

For more information about dust control, contact your Local air agency.

Contact Us